Hope kept alive in Corrientes

Published: 17 June 2004 0:00 CET

Fernando Nuño in Corrientes.

“Qué hora son, mi corazón…What time is it, my heart...?" The music of Manu Chao sounds in an old kiosk on a crossroads 1,000 kilometers north of Buenos Aires.

"If the bus does not come today, we’ll have to walk to the soup kitchen,” says 17-year-old Nico to a group of young people living in Barrio Esperanza, on the outskirts of Corrientes.

But Nico keeps smiling, reciting the proverb: “It is better to travel full of hope than to arrive."

It is lunch time at the soup kitchen hall. A group of children wait for their turn under a walnut tree. "Today's menu is mashed potato, meat and an orange," says six-year-old Carla, playing with her plate and a metal tumbler.

"The soup kitchen has become the heart of the community. Any activity has to take into account mealtimes at the dining hall," explains Gabriela Bissero, a Red Cross communicator in Corrientes.

Eating a hot meal once a day is a cause for celebration in many Argentine neighbourhoods. Statistics show that 4 million children under the age of 14 suffer from different degrees of malnutrition. They have been the worst affected by the country’s social deterioration.

By the end of 2003, 57 per cent of the Argentine population were below the poverty line, while 26 per cent were below the destitution line.

The Red Cross community health programme in Corrientes includes activities for the proper handling of water and food, and workshops on the importance of a balanced diet and family hygiene.

“As a requirement for entering the dining hall, we insist that people have a clean plate, a clean glass and clean hands,” explains volunteer Verónica Pizarello.

Enhancing communication

When Nico and his friends finally arrive at the soup kitchen hall, a group of smiling children greets them. They have just finished the meal and are calmly playing football. The Argentine Red Cross (ARC) volunteers quickly clean up the area so they can begin an HIV/AIDS prevention workshop.

"The aim is to get participants to pay attention to their sexual health; to be able to recognize how HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases and passed on; and to use condoms correctly," explains José María Dibello, ARC national AIDS coordinator.

The workshop also manages to get young people to talk openly about their problems. "We realized that before speaking about AIDS, many young people needed to talk about their own bodies and to break taboos. The most important achievement of the meeting, besides prevention, is that now young people meet friends, drink tea together and create an open discussion group," says volunteer Griselda Orial.

According to the Health Ministry, about 27,000 people are living with HIV in Argentina.

"A great deal of virus transmission is from men to young women. Last year's trend in Argentina shows that HIV transmission is on the increase among poor young women," adds Dibello.

The Red Cross, supported by the United Nations Global Fund, has started a prevention programme with 144,000 people in 15 vulnerable communities of 10 provinces. On this occasion, volunteers Verórica and Gabriela are implementing a workshop as part of the programme in Barrio Esperanza.

Nico emerges from the gathering in a good mood. He spends what remains of the daylight hours playing football with his friends. Soccer and volleyball are two activities organised by the Red Cross volunteers as a way of reducing juvenile violence rates in the neighbourhood.

The group of young people look at the road out of the corner of their eyes, just in case a bus arrives to take them back home. "Hope is the last thing to die," says Nico.

The saying was never truer than in the Esperanza neighbourhood of Corrientes.